If ever there were a living embodiment of the cliche “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” it would be John Lydon.
The 59-year-old frontman for the alt-rock band PiL — best known as the infamous Johnny Rotten, leader of the seminal ’70s punk force of nature The Sex Pistols — might never have become part of music history, he explains in his new autobiography Anger Is an Energy: My Life Uncensored, if doctors hadn’t recommended to his parents a highly unusual course of therapy after a near-fatal bout of spinal meningitis at age 7.
“They were told to keep me angry when I was released from the hospital so that it might spur on memories,” Lydon said in a phone interview from London. “I didn’t know who they were. I didn’t know anything. And it took a long time, but that’s why anger to me is a very positive force, because without that agitation I might never have found myself again. I might quite easily have become institutionalized.”
Lydon will take the stage with PiL, which stands for Public Image Ltd., at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Culture Room in Fort Lauderdale in support of the band’s tenth studio album, What the World Needs Now. The singer has always produced confrontational and aggressive music, from the Pistols’ shockingly irreverent songs God Save the Queen and Anarchy in the U.K. to PiL classics including This Is Not a Love Song, Rise and Disappointed.
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But many fans couldn’t have fully understood the true source of that vitriol, and in turn, the true beginnings of Johnny Rotten, without Lydon opening up about his youth.
You cannot invent me — it has to come from something, and that’s the torture that made me.
John Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten
“I felt I needed to explain a certain missing part of my life, which is my childhood, and the illness that I had to endure and conquer and survive, because it nearly killed me,” Lydon said. “What really ‘made’ Johnny Rotten happened from 7 years old onward. That was a disease that put me in a coma and stole my memories for four solid years. And to survive that — well, hello! That explains why when I joined the Pistols, I was so full-on strong.
“You cannot invent me – it has to come from something, and that’s the torture that made me.”
So paradoxically, Lydon’s fans — those who love his hypnotic music, his signature “psych-ward stare” and his hair-on-fire, stream-of-consciousness vocal style — can thank a childhood illness for the authentic, volatile artist within him.
Lydon , who got the nickname Johnny Rotten way back when because of his life-threateningly horrid dental hygiene, appreciates all that he went through for molding him into a survivor in more ways than one.
“Everything I’ve ever achieved, there’s always been somebody standing in front of me saying, ‘You can’t do that,’” he said. “In fact, even in my life before [the Sex Pistols], and all those childhood illnesses that I had to endure, it was always, ‘oh, he’ll never survive,’ ‘that won’t work’ — whatever, whatever. I think that’s the story of my life: I don’t take no for an answer.”
Lydon also doesn’t tolerate lying — from politicians, from record companies, from his bandmates, even from his music — a refreshingly rare trait that like most everything else stems from his childhood and his parents.
“I had to rely on what the adults around me were telling me to be the whole truth,” he explained. “And so I never want to inflict a lie on another human being. My philosophy in life is, I want to get back into the Garden of Eden, and Public Image are already there. And you’re all welcome. All you’ve gotta do is stop lying to each other, and start really enjoying each other as human beings. We can live without the lies, we really can. I’ve proved it.
“There’s no self-pity in me. It’s something that my mother and father would never have tolerated,” Lydon continued. “And although they’re both dead now, they still live on in my head, and their sense of values are all important to me: To tell the truth. Tell it like it is. There’s no other way for me. And I know that makes it difficult to work with me, for some people, but those kinds of ‘some people’ I don’t need.”
At Thursday night’s show, PiL fans can expect to hear plenty of classics but also a healthy dose of the new album, maybe as many as four or five songs.
“And they fit very well into a PiL set,” Lydon said. “It’s proper outrageous good we are right now, and we are thrilling audiences. It’s quite great to see the look of shock on people’s faces at just how a sense of integrity can be so impressive. And that’s what’s lacking in modern music. That’s why people don’t go to venues anymore and don’t see live bands — they don’t believe them, because they’re all putting on an act, or wearing makeup, or capes or whatever.
“ I’m not selling anything up here other than this is my life’s experiences: Have you got anything similar, audience? And there’s the connection and bond. It’s very cathedral and opera-like, really, the way a PiL gig is, of course without the religion.”
Then he laughs.
That same philosophy of truth-above-all even colors Lydon’s memories, especially of his crazy days with the Sex Pistols, which he says are still fresh.
“What you must understand is, for four years, I lost my memories — from 7 and a half to 11,” Lydon said. “So for me, everything that has happened ever since is very, very important to remember accurately, to not elaborate on or fantasize about, but to see it almost photographically or ‘cinemagraphically.’ It is very important. It was my initial first step into music. And what a great gift that was! It’s incredible the love I have for them fellows, you know? Even when they might not have liked me, it doesn’t matter — they put up with me. And we made great records because of that. Alternatively, I also put up with them.”
And he laughs again.
If you go
What: An Evening with Public Image Ltd. (PiL)
Where: Culture Room, 3045 N. Federal Hwy., Fort Lauderdale
When: 8 p.m. Thursday